Trudeau's appearance before committee may not shed new light on WE controversy, experts say

A prime minister's appearance before a House of Commons committee is a rare event in Canadian politics — but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's date with the finance committee today might not shed much light on the WE Charity controversy, experts say.

Appearances by sitting PMs before committees are exceedingly rare

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill July 21, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

A prime minister's appearance before a House of Commons committee is a rare event in Canadian politics — but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's date with the finance committee today might not shed much light on the WE Charity controversy, experts say.

Only a few serving prime ministers have ever testified before a parliamentary committee. On most of those occasions, the PM appeared before a committee to answer questions on routine matters such as government spending — not to be grilled over a potential ethics breach.

"Generally speaking, prime ministers do not appear at committees for any reason, and it's been incredibly rare for prime ministers to be summoned in this way to defend themselves," said Mike Morden, research director for The Samara Centre for Democracy.

Trudeau will be in the hot seat for one hour beginning at 3 p.m. ET today to answer questions about the government's decision to select WE Charity to run the federal government's $900 million student volunteer program. The prime minister did not recuse himself from cabinet discussions on the aid program, despite the fact that members of his family had been paid to speak at WE events.

Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford is now scheduled to testify for two hours following the prime minister.

In 1979, then-prime minister Joe Clark set a precedent by appearing before a committee scrutinizing government spending. Pierre Elliott Trudeau made subsequent annual appearances over the following four years.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper also appeared before a special Senate committee studying Senate reform in 2006. Morden said Harper was there to push his government's agenda, not to face tough questions about a political controversy.

The only event in Canadian political history comparable to Trudeau's committee appearance today, he said, happened in 1932 — when then-prime minister Richard Bedford (R.B.) Bennett was called to testify before a special committee over allegations he'd used public funds to pay for his sister's honeymoon.

An effort to 'neutralize' a scandal

A committee can't compel an MP or a prime minister to testify. Morden said Trudeau's decision to appear suggests the PMO feels he needs to address the controversy head-on.

"I think the PM is confronting the fact that there's been an accumulation of separate incidents which have given rise to questions about the ethics and decision-making," he said. "So I think what's at stake for the PM extends to protecting beyond this particular issue. Providing a clear, rational explanation here might help to neutralize what's otherwise become risks to how he's perceived broadly."

The WE Charity controversy has exploded in recent weeks, putting the organization and its related enterprises under intense public scrutiny. 

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has come under fire as well for failing to recuse himself from cabinet discussions on the WE Charity deal. One of his daughters works in the organization's travel department and another daughter has spoken at WE Day events.

Morneau under fire

Morneau has faced calls for his resignation since he revealed to the House of Commons finance committee on July 22 that WE Charity had covered $41,000 in costs for him and his family in 2017 for trips they made to Ecuador and Kenya to see the organization's humanitarian work in action.

Morneau told the committee he hadn't realized he'd failed to personally repay WE for the trips, adding he reimbursed the costs that same morning. 

Morden said that, in theory, the committee setting should allow for more in-depth, careful questioning than a typical question period — where the questions and answers are short and it's easy for the prime minister to stick to talking points.

Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, said the fact that the Liberals have a minority government gives the opposition majority on the committee much more power to hold the government to account.

He said he doubts the hour-long session will bring much new information to light, however. He said he expects to see more partisan theatrics than lines of questioning yielding substantive answers.

"[Trudeau] will deflect questions. The Conservatives are going to come in there with spears, burning spears. The NDP will poke away as well. But you don't get cross-examination. You get to chew up the time," he said, adding that Liberal MPs on the committee likely will spend their time lobbing "softball questions."

Despite the damage this latest ethics scandal has done to the Liberal government, Wiseman said he believes that Canadians' preoccupation with the pandemic crisis is distracting them — which could mitigate the fallout for Trudeau and his party.

"People rally around the leader when you've got a crisis. The pandemic's a crisis," he said.

A brief history of PM committee appearances

Here are the recorded appearances of sitting prime ministers appearing before committees, provided by the Library of Parliament:

  • William Lyon Mackenzie King testified before the standing committee on privileges and elections on June 9, 1924.
  • R.B. Bennett testified before the special committee on March 3, 1932, responding to allegations of misuse of funds from the Canadian treasury.
  • Joe Clark testified before the standing committee on miscellaneous estimates on Nov. 15, 1979 on government spending estimates, saying at the time he hoped his appearance would "emphasize the government's commitment to respecting and serving Parliament as well as leading it."
  • Pierre Elliott Trudeau testified before the standing committee on miscellaneous estimates in 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983 to answer questions about spending estimates.
  • Stephen Harper testified before the special Senate committee on Senate reform on Sept. 7, 2006 — the first time a prime minister had appeared before a Senate committee.

Former prime ministers have been called on to testify before parliamentary committees on a few occasions. Brian Mulroney answered questions related to the Airbus affair before the standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics on Dec. 13, 2007.

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